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Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program: A Step Toward Mutual Understanding

Samantha Vinograd, a Director for Iraq for the National Security Council, helps share the experience of 50 undergraduate students from Iraq who were able to attend a six-week intensive academic summer program at a U.S. host university through the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.

The Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, (IYLEP) funded by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and implemented by AED, a nonprofit organization working globally to improve education, health, social and economic development, enables 50 highly-motivated undergraduate students from Iraq to attend a six-week intensive academic summer program at a U.S. host university.

Recently, these students visited Washington, D.C., where they had the opportunity to meet with Macon Phillips, Special Assistant to the President and Director for New Media at the White House.  Macon discussed the Obama administration’s use of blogs, social networking sites, and text messaging to increase transparency and public participation in governance.  The students have shared some insights below from their program and how their worldview and personal view have changed as a direct result of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program.

“Every hour that we spend here is a new experience because we get to see things that we don’t usually see in Iraq. Here you realize how valuable human life is, and what people should actually do to have a better life. When I walk down the street, I see people running, laughing, jumping, or doing whatever comes to their mind, and no one around them is staring. That is one thing that has really surprised me, because in my country you have to live for the people around you, not for yourself.

IYLEP is a great opportunity for us in a variety of ways.

This trip is not only about what we learn from all those knowledgeable professors inside the classroom, it is also about all the new and beneficial things that we learn from the outer world.  This program has proven to be a step toward a better understanding between Iraqis and Americans, which is crucial for both of our countries. Iraq has been isolated for a long time, and the impression that most people have about the United States and its citizens is distorted. Many people in Iraq think of the United States based on what they see on TV. However after we arrived here, we got to look at American society and culture more closely.  We also believe that this is a two-way learning experience. While we are trying to learn about American culture, we are also sharing our traditions, norms, and values with the Americans we meet.

The diversity of American culture is not the only thing we are amazed by, but also by how this nation embraces every culture under the concepts of equality and justice. Admittedly, there is not equality and justice everywhere in the United States, but we have learned that they are key concepts that allow this large country to exist peacefully.  Furthermore, it is very interesting how we can live with and adapt to people having different cultures, norms, religions and beliefs, and share our own stories and lives with them.  It is a totally new experience, and is teaching me to know about the real personalities of my colleagues, far away from society-imposed social barriers that might make them act differently.

We are all proud of ourselves to become young leaders and very soon to be leaders in our communities. I have faith that we are the young leaders.  We have the ability, not just to resist the current situation, but also to work hard to change it.  As a result of our experiences here and the one of future IYLEP students, we will be able to change the way our people see America and the American people.  Being IYLEP students has influenced every one of us, regardless of our age, religion, or background.

Most of us have never been outside Iraq, so coming to the U.S. is a great, but wonderful challenge. We cannot thank America and the American people enough for this opportunity. We will carry every experience, idea, and knowledge we learned in the U.S to implement back home. We now understand that community is at the heart of every society and that informing the entire society about its different communities is the first step towards peace and a better understanding.”

Samantha Vinograd is a Director for Iraq for the National Security  Council